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Indian-origin research scientist is helping Australia and India tackle environmental issues

CSIRO environmental toxicologist Dr Anu Kumar is the Indian Australian leading a project examining the damage of pollutants in the Ganga.

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Increasing populations, expansion of urban areas, intensive agriculture, climate change, pollution and depleting natural water resources are the main drivers of water quality issues in India. All of these especially pose a threat to India’s largest river Ganga – into which some three million litres of sewage is emptied every day.

Dr Anu Kumar, principal research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), has been tracking pollutants in the Ganga. The environmental toxicologist and risk assessor with a career spanning 23 years tells Indian Link, “Both the Australian and Indian water industry face a challenge to maintain a safe and sustainable water supply in the face of increased domestic, farming and industrial discharges and climate variations.”

“In our investigations we wanted to identify and determine the impact of selected emerging contaminants discharged via sewage effluent into Indian and Australian rivers. We did this via biological and chemical assessments.”

While the project has already been delivered, the Australian research team is continuing its collaboration with Indian colleagues through workshops, conferences and joint publications. The collaborative projects include tie-ups with CSIR India, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), IITs and Indian universities, based on funding from sources such as DFAT, Australia-India Strategic Research Fund (AISRF), and World Bank.

Eco-awakening

As a child, Dr Kumar learned about sustainability on long train journeys that her family undertook – her father’s job in the Indian Air Force required them to travel across India.

“Crossing the Mahanadi Bridge in Odisha, I would see rice paddies and ponds near each household,” she recalls. “At holidays in northern India with our grandparents and extended family, we would awake to doves and peacocks each morning.”

But this began to change when she joined Panjab University as a student. “Every monsoon, I would hear a dwindling number of frogs croaking and birds chirping.”

These small yet significant observations nudged her to pursue a career in the environmental sciences.

She arrived in Australia in 1991 with an AIDAB (Australian International Development Assistance Bureau) scholarship towards a PhD in environmental toxicology, in collaboration with NSW EPA (currently known as the NSW Department of Planning and Environment).

“I learnt a lot during my PhD on the impact of pesticides in the cotton growing areas of NSW. It contributed to the development of water quality guidelines for certain pesticides used in Australia.”

In 2002, she joined the CSIRO as a scientist. Here, she led projects that demonstrated how wineries in Australia could reuse their wastewater “to safely irrigate crops”.

“The nutrients and organic matter in winery wastewater can enhance soil productivity, thus increasing crop growth and yield. In a country like Australia that’s susceptible to drought conditions, it is important that we find more efficient and sustainable ways to use what can be such a scarce resource,” she says.

Her extensive experience led her to the Ganga project in India.

Dr Anu Kumar working with CSIRO
Source: Supplied

The Ganga project

The Indo-Australian project offered opportunities for scientific cooperation, technology transfer and capacity building. “We also shared Australia’s expertise in water quality monitoring to guide management decisions in India. While working together, we ensured the effective abatement of pollution and rejuvenation of rivers.”

But what is polluting the Ganga?

“It is hard to pinpoint a specific class of chemicals,” she clarifies. “The pollution along the river is from both diffuse and point sources. Unlike point source pollution, which enters a river course at a specific site such as a pipe discharge, diffuse pollution occurs when potentially polluting substances leach into surface waters and groundwater as a result of rainfall, soil infiltration and surface runoff.”

Pesticides seem to top this list of pollutants. According to a recent report, she says, the total usage of pesticides in Ganga basin between 2012 and 2017 was 72,741 MT, which is 27% of the country’s total consumption.

Dr Kumar’s team used analytical and bioanalytical tools to detect micropollutants in the Ganga, evaluating drain discharges into it at two major cities.

“We analysed chemicals of emerging concern (CECs) in river water samples such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides and pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs). Sewage was found to be the dominant source of organic micropollutants in urban drain effluents.”

The scientists working on the Ganga Basin
Source: Supplied

The solutions

What is the solution for river pollutants, we ask. “Tackle the source, not the symptom,” she responds. “Education and public awareness are key. Governments are running initiatives to promote safe water, but we can’t leave this solely to them. The solution is in our hands and each of us must take the responsibility of ensuring our rivers are clean.”

She adds, “Traditional knowledge and experiences along with evidence-based science should go hand in hand to tackle this issue.”

Reduce and eliminate the use of CECs, she suggests, and replace these with environmentally friendly and less toxic substances. “Industries should comply with the zero liquid discharge principle.”

The CECs she is referring to are pharmaceuticals, industrial and household chemicals, personal care products, pesticides, manufactured nanomaterials, microplastics, and their transformation products.

What can Australia and India learn from each other from their own mistakes?

Dr Kumar says that while the environmental problems are similar in both societies, “the main difference lies in the extent of the problem.”

“In Australia, the regulatory frameworks, guidelines, monitoring, surveillance programs and public awareness help us to identify and manage these issues. In India, we have identified champions, those passionate persons who are ready to do more than what is required to make a difference. What we need is a continuity of our efforts in this area to achieve bigger outcomes for safe water and sustainable economic development for its 1.4 billion people,” she concludes.

READ ALSO: How a school project is helping protect mangrove forests in India-Aus

Prutha Chakraborty
Prutha Chakraborty
Prutha Bhosle Chakraborty is a freelance journalist. With over nine years of experience in different Indian newsrooms, she has worked both as a reporter and a copy editor. She writes on community, health, food and culture. She has widely covered the Indian diaspora, the expat community, embassies and consulates. Prutha is an alumna of the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bengaluru.

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